Saint Francis de Laval
Francis de Laval was born on April 30, 1623, in the Normandy region of France. He is the heir of one of the most prestigious French families since his father, Hugues de Montmorency Laval, bears the title of first baron of France, that is to say that he is a descendant of the first companion of King Clovis, to have been baptized by Saint Remi in 496!
Francis had two older brothers, both of whom were destined for military careers. As for him, he was sent to the Jesuit college of La Flèche, which was attended by the children of the noblest families in France. Young Jesuit fathers who wanted to be sent to the missions in Canada taught there.
He was a good student, but very early on he felt the attractions of a priestly vocation, encouraged by his uncle, the bishop of Évreux. Under the spiritual direction of his teachers, he made rapid progress in virtue and piety. “God alone knows how much I am obliged to your company, which warmed me in its bosom when I was a child, which nourished me with its salutary doctrine in my youth, and which since then has not ceased to encourage and direct me. The Jesuits taught me to love God and were my guides in the way of salvation and Christian virtues. “Admitted to the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, his heart was taken by the One whose admirable heart St. John Eudes would praise.
In 1641, he began his theological studies at the prestigious Clermont College in Paris. They were already well advanced when three years later he learned that his two older brothers had died in the war. Since his father had died a few years earlier and the administration of the estate had left much to be desired, his mother asked him to abandon his vocation and marry to take over the family estate. He refuses the marriage, but abandons his studies to return to the castle, where in two years, he rectifies the situation, revealing remarkable gifts as an administrator. Once his filial duty was essentially accomplished, he asked his uncle for the priestly ordination which he received on May 1st 1647. He only aspired to remain modestly at home to continue to look after the family estate, while visiting the sick and teaching poor children. However, his uncle, already convinced of his rare qualities, wanted to make him his main collaborator and in 1648 he was named archdeacon of the diocese of Évreux. He was thus put in charge of the administration of this important diocese of one hundred and fifty-five parishes, which he did with mastery. The most brilliant of ecclesiastical careers is assured to him…
However, Francis saw things differently. He had always wanted to be a missionary. During his stays in Paris to prepare a doctorate in canon law, he met up with his former classmates from the college in Clermont, all of whom were motivated by the same zeal. They founded the “Association of Good Friends” which was to be the cradle of the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Paris.
In 1654, the Holy See was looking for priests to be sent as vicars apostolic in Indochina. Francis de Laval was approached along with François Pallu and Bernard Picques. The French court having given its approval, he sold all his possessions, renounced his birthright and left for the Eternal City, at the age of only 31.
As soon as he arrived, he learned that an anti-Jesuit cabal had caused his eviction. Unperturbed, seeing this setback as a provision of Providence, he returned to Normandy, to Caen, to the home of a pious layman, Sir de Bernières, who housed a community of priests and lay people devoted to a life of prayer in his vast residence. “They got up early in the morning and spent an hour of prayer together. Then they heard Holy Mass and took Holy Communion almost every day. Those who were priests could, however, go and say mass in the different communities of the city, because it was always one of the principles of the hermitage: to join to the exercises of one’s own sanctification those which could be of service to one’s neighbor. “This is how Francis de Laval devoted himself to the service of the poor and to two religious communities whose situation he improved. The months and years passed without any other ambition.
This will be for the future bishop of Quebec a real novitiate, as Father Nercam remarks in the preliminary process of beatification: “I have personal reasons to insist on the influence that this kind of novitiate at the hermitage of Caen exerted on the long and glorious apostolate of Bishop de Laval. I knew M. de Bernières, who was the soul of this hermitage, or at least I had the opportunity to study many of his writings, especially at the Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris, where fervent seminarians could not get enough of reading his work on The Interior Christian. (…) I did not know Bishop de Laval then. Since then, having had the opportunity to read the history of his life and works, I must confess that I recognized with admiration the realization of the precepts and counsels of the highest perfection, contained in the Interior Christian. “
Vicar apostolic of Quebec :
His life took a different turn in 1657 when, in response to repeated requests from the founders of Ville-Marie (Montreal) and the Jesuits, the court decided to propose a bishop for New France to the Holy See. The choice was a delicate one: a devoted priest, pious, a skilful administrator and one capable of reconciling the apparently contradictory interests of the Jesuits, the Sulpicians and the Archbishop of Rouen, who had the colony under his jurisdiction up to that time. It was then that Francis de Laval was remembered.
His appointment as vicar apostolic provoked a storm of passion among the Jansenists, including the archbishop of Rouen, who in the meantime became archbishop of Paris! By way of legal action, he succeeded in preventing the coronation planned for the date chosen by the future bishop, October 4, 1657. The promoters of New France then had recourse to the Pope. With his permission, in secret, on December 8, 1658, Francis de Laval was consecrated bishop of Pétrée, apostolic vicar of Quebec, in the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, exempt from the episcopal jurisdiction of the archbishop of Paris. When the latter learned of this, he was furious and decided to do everything possible to oppose the departure of Monsignor de Laval; even the threats of pontifical sanctions did not make him give in. Finally, it was the personal intervention of the young Louis XIV that allowed the new bishop to embark for Quebec City on April 13, 1659. These sad setbacks had the happy consequence of provoking a personal meeting between the vicar apostolic and the young king. Impressed by the prelate’s calmness, charity and natural authority, Louis XIV would never forget him.
Bishop de Laval disembarked in Quebec City on June 16 and discovered his immense diocese, which still had only two thousand settlers, two-thirds of whom were in Quebec City and its immediate surroundings. The others were in Ville-Marie and Trois-Rivières. The war with the Iroquois was at its height. Trade was totally paralyzed. Seventeen Jesuits, six secular priests, and four Sulpicians, who had been living in Ville-Marie for two years, made up the clergy of the colony. To these must be added the Ursuline and Augustinian Hospitaller communities.
Right away, the young prelate earned the esteem of the good people. A few days after his arrival, St. Mary of the Incarnation wrote: “I do not say that he is a saint, that would be saying too much: but I will say with truth that he lives holy and as an Apostle. “Although he was of high nobility, he showed an evangelical simplicity which attracted hearts. Of course, he did not have a bishopric and he chose to live in a hospital, which allowed him to regularly help with the care. His network of friendships in France provided him with enough resources to allow him to do a lot of charity work, even though he would live in great poverty all his life.
His arrival disrupted many habits. For a quarter of a century, each one had been carrying out his work in his own way, far from the authority of the Archbishop of Rouen. He noticed, in particular, that the governor was Gallican, that is, he claimed that the authority of the King, as well as that of his representatives, was absolute and was exercised even over the Church, so he intended to submit the bishop to his control. Since the title of Vicar Apostolic was new at the time, some questioned his powers and argued that they applied only to the missions.
Always maintaining the most exacting balance and the most generous charity, Bishop de Laval pretended not to hear any of the criticisms and suspicions and went straight ahead. His first decision was to establish an ecclesiastical tribunal, in other words to send the governor back to secular affairs.
Afterwards, and not without courage, he undertook the apostolic visit of his vast diocese, from the Gaspésie region to the Outaouais region! “He set out on the snow in his first winter to visit his flock, not on horseback or in a carriage, but on snowshoes and on the ice. In the right season, “he was led in a small bark canoe by two peasants, with no one but a clergyman following him. “He gave the sacrament of confirmation to hundreds of French and Indian Christians.
From this first episcopal visit, he realized the devastation that brandy was causing among them. He therefore forbade the sale of it under penalty of excommunication. This brandy facilitated the fur trade, which was a priority for the royal administration in order to make the colony profitable. The conflict with the governor is inevitable.
Christianity in New France :
Saint Francis de Laval decided to return to France and address the King directly. He thought he would also take advantage of this opportunity to explain to him the catastrophic situation of New France and the remedies that, as a good administrator, he foresaw.
Louis XIV, who had been in power personally for only two years, gave him an excellent welcome. Following their talks, he recalled the governor and made decisions that would forever mark New France. He decided to administer it as he would any other province in his kingdom, but with one particularity: he gave the bishop political powers equal to those of the governor. All the decisions of the Sovereign Council had to be signed by him in order to be executive, and he was the one who granted the seigneuries. It was a total defeat for the Gallicans! Louis XIV wanted to make New France a true Christianity where royal and ecclesiastical powers would necessarily act in concert.
From the royal favor, Bishop de Laval also obtained that his apostolic vicariate be erected into a diocese, and that he could open a seminary which would be a replica of the one of the Foreign Missions of Paris. This is one of Francis de Laval’s main achievements, and perhaps the one that will most inspire our bishops of tomorrow, at the time of the Catholic Renaissance. The prelate understood that the traditional model of parishes administered by fabriques that paid the parish priest and managed the buildings was not adapted to the colony because of a lack of financial resources and a shortage of priests. He therefore wanted to adopt the community structure of the missionary clergy of Indochina, which depended on the Seminary of the Foreign Missions of Paris, for its formation, the care of elderly priests and the material supply of the missions.
Similarly, in his diocese of Quebec, each diocesan priest would be materially dependent on the Seminary, whose resources would be assured by donations and by the development of the seigneuries that would be assigned to him. The bishop would assign the priests to parishes that would not have to support them. In case of illness or accident, the priest would be taken care of by the Seminary which would provide the parish with a replacement.
This system had many advantages: a good understanding and a community of soul among the clergy, and above all the absence of money conflicts between the priests and their parishioners. The authority of the clergy was reinforced… to the great displeasure of the governor. Louis XIV, another favor, had asked Bishop de Laval to choose the new governor himself. His choice fell on M. de Mésy, a good administrator and especially a pious man. However, as soon as he arrived in New France, he adopted the same procedures as his predecessor and opposed the bishop! Historians have now found the key to the enigma: secret messages from Louis XIV’s chief minister, Colbert, ordered the governor to undermine the authority of the prelate in order to develop the colony through a purely mercantilist policy.
In Rome, too, efforts were being made to compromise Francis de Laval’s work by preventing the erection of the diocese of Quebec, which would not take place until 1675. But all these difficulties did not trouble our holy vicar apostolic: is it not in the supernatural order of things that the work of God is hindered? Providentially, he was brought to know the battles that Blessed Catherine of Saint Augustine, a hospitable nun in Quebec City, was waging almost continuously against the devil in the greatest secrecy. Convinced of her holiness, he liked to talk with her and confide his worries to her.
Everything that the hand of God does serves us admirably,” he wrote to his friend Father Boudon, who had succeeded him as archdeacon of Évreux, “even though we do not see the effects of it soon. For many years Providence has been leading this Church, and consequently us, along very painful and crucifying paths both for the spiritual and the temporal. As long as his holy will is done, it does not matter to us. It seems to me that it is my peace and happiness in this life to want no other paradise. It is the kingdom of God which is within the soul which makes our center and our all. “
The consolidation of the Church in Canada:
Without letting himself be defeated by the obstacles, he founded a minor seminary, a trade school, a small school. He encourages devotion to Saint Anne in the sanctuary of the Côte de Beaupré, to which he offers the first statue of the pilgrimage. He also developed the devotion to the Holy Family, which he gave as a model to the families of the colonists.
We must insist especially on his devotion to the Immaculate Conception. It is under this title that he erects, in 1664, the parish of Quebec. The following year, he and the priests of his seminary took up the vow to the Immaculate Conception that the Jesuits had renewed since 1635. On July 11, 1666, he consecrated his cathedral to the Immaculate Conception and placed his entire diocese under her patronage. And it was again on the feast of the Immaculate Conception that he inaugurated the buildings of the Seminary of Quebec in 1677.
Proof that this devotion was notoriously dear to him, a Jesuit from the mission of Illinois, to whom the bishop of Quebec gave a silver ciborium for which he had melted his dishes, wrote to him: “This is your mission, your Excellency, since it is under the protection of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady… and although you have always been the father of all our missions, this one, Your Excellency, must be attached to you in a special way and because it is the mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin and by the beautiful present you are making to her. “
As for him, he leads the most austere life. At the seminary, he reserved for himself only a few rooms where he lived without heating. He is remarkably faithful to his prayer practices, to visiting the poor and the sick. His door is always open for his priests. He scrupulously fulfilled his duties as a bishop, as prescribed by the Council of Trent, both to the faithful and to religious, for the teaching of the faith and the proscription of heresies. New France owes him in particular for having been preserved from Jansenism. In spite of the poverty of his means, he also applied himself to the development of all the liturgical splendors. “He was aware of the infinite value of the Mass, both for the personal sanctification of the priest, for the sanctification of the people of God and for the mission and life of the Church. “
Remarkably, he encourages frequent communion and that of children. Blessed Mary of the Incarnation wrote to her son: “Our Reverend Fathers and our Prelate are delighted with the education we give to youth. They make our daughters take communion from the age of eight, finding them as educated as they can be. Bishop de Laval considered that communion should not be delayed, as soon as the person is aware of what he is doing.
His devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was very ardent. He imposed that the meetings of the Sovereign Council be preceded by the celebration of Mass, “to draw the blessings of Heaven upon its decisions. In the Jesuits’ diary, we note a miracle that made a great impression: on February 13, 1661, a house in the lower town burned down. “The Bishop brought the Blessed Sacrament, in whose presence some people noticed that the fire went down,” preventing the fire from spreading to other houses in the lower town. And the population went in procession to the church to thank God for his protection.
In 1671, he had to return to France to explain himself to Louis XIV against Governor Frontenac. The King renewed his confidence in him and confirmed his powers. But back in Quebec City, Bishop de Laval realized that Frontenac had defied his authority by daring to bring the Recollets to Quebec City; since these religious were not subject to episcopal authority, the governor counted on them to absolve the merchants who had been excommunicated by the bishop for selling alcohol!
It is in this context that one must place the quarrels of precedence, of which our modern historians make a big fuss, between the governor and the bishop, between the royal officers and the priests. It was in fact Christianity that the bishop was defending against an already secular conception of political power.
In 1680, at the age of sixty, he undertook for the third time the visit of his vast diocese. The attachment of the population was confirmed on each occasion. The religious communities also appreciated him, even though he had, on several occasions, divergent interpretations of their rule. Moreover, one of the traits of his personality that made him so likeable was the total absence of resentment towards those who stood up to him. At the end of this tour, he fell seriously ill and was at death’s door in less than two weeks. He recovered, however, thanks to the prayers of the entire colony, but he was determined to return to France to present his resignation to the King. This he did in 1684.
Louis XIV, who still held him in high esteem, despite the less than glowing reports of his governors and intendants, asked him to choose his successor. He chose the abbot of Saint-Vallier, who had a great reputation for piety, exact doctrine and apostolic zeal. Obviously, the Gallican and Jansenist parties used every means to oppose his nomination and then his coronation. While waiting for the matter to be settled, François de Laval proposed to the King that the chosen one go to Quebec to familiarize himself with his future diocese and administer it with the title of vicar general; the King accepted.
The diocese had changed greatly in twenty-five years. There were now 25 parishes, 102 priests, 97 nuns for a population of 12,000 settlers. During his stay, Father de Saint-Vallier showed extraordinary courage, endurance and capacity for work, but also… a terrible character. The priests of the Seminary complained to Bishop de Laval who saw only one solution: to ask the bishop-elect, who had returned to France to be consecrated, to resign. But he took it very badly and refused. Francis de Laval then appealed to the King who, for the first time, did not follow a recommendation of the old bishop. He even forbade him to return to New France! The ordeal is sensitive to the heart of the holy prelate, which brings us a magnificent letter to his priests of the Seminary: “Let us adore the conduct of God over us and over all his works, my dear Sirs. I hoped and had full confidence that he would give me the consolation of uniting myself to you in body as I am in heart and mind; but his gracious Providence disposes of it all differently and according to his good pleasure, which must be all our happiness and peace for time and eternity. You will know, by the copies of the active and passive letters which you will find enclosed, what obliges me to remain in France. I had not yet received my sentence when Our Lord gave me the grace to go before the Blessed Sacrament to make a sacrifice of all my desires and of what is most dear to me in this world. I began by making amends to the justice of God, who wanted to show me mercy by acknowledging that it was by a just punishment for my sins and infidelities that Providence was depriving me of the blessing of returning to a place where I had offended him so much, and I said to him – it seems to me with good heart and in a spirit of humiliation – what the high priest Heli said when Samuel told him on behalf of God what was to happen to him: “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his sight”. But since the goodness of Our Lord does not reject a contrite and humbled heart, and He lowers and raises up, He made me know that it was the greatest grace He could give me to share in the states He wished to bear in His life and death for our sake, in thanksgiving of which I say a Te Deum with a heart filled with joy and consolation in the depths of my soul, because for the lower part, it is left in the bitterness it must bear. It is a wound and a sore which will be difficult to heal and which apparently will last until death, unless it pleases Divine Providence, which disposes of hearts as it pleases, to make some change in the state of affairs. This will be when and as it pleases Him, without creatures being able to oppose it, being able to do only what He allows them to do. It is quite right, however, that we should remain lost ourselves and live only the life of pure abandonment in all that concerns us within and without. “
Bishop de Saint-Vallier was finally crowned on January 25, 1688. And the King returned to better feelings, he welcomed the request of the clergy and the population of Quebec: Bishop de Laval, who was henceforth called “Monseigneur l’Ancien”, was authorized to return to New France. The favorable winds allowed him to arrive in Quebec City before his successor! He settled modestly in the Seminary and tried not to overshadow him. But he was to experience the greatest cross of his life. Indeed, he witnessed, powerless, the upheaval of all his work. In 1692, the Seminary was suppressed in the form that had been so effective and that had allowed such a good understanding between the colonists and the clergy. Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier also found that “communions were too frequent in Canada”. Bishop L’Ancien was moved by this criticism and replied that the question was not whether there were too many communions, but rather whether everyone was well disposed to receive Holy Communion.
After a few months, complaints against the attitude of the new bishop poured into Versailles from all over New France. Louis XIV asked Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier to resign, but he refused. François de Laval had only to spend a lot of patience to limit the damages of the harsh administration of his successor. He was convinced that such a situation could only be explained by the play of the devil, with God’s permission, and therefore, ultimately, for the good of all. He applied himself to a life of poverty, prayer and penance. Hubert Houssart, who was his servant during the last twenty years of his life, has left us a delicious testimony about his master. Here is a short excerpt: “Even though he went to bed very late, he never failed to get up at two in the morning and the last five years of his life at three. And to get up during the said fifteen years all alone, without fire having no stove in his room, where he froze very hard all the nights during the winter; to get dressed alone, to bandage his legs, etc… To go at four o’clock to the church, his lantern in the hand, to open the doors, to sound his mass, which was the first, of four hours and half for the workers, and to remain in the church or in the sacristy which was very cold and inconvenient for then, until seven o’clock, without seeing nor to heat himself with another fire during that time, during the greatest cold, that that of the stove of which he had been using to say the holy mass. “
He would experience two more trials: on November 15, 1701, the Seminary, its chapel and the presbytery fell prey to flames. The reconstruction was barely completed when, on October 1, 1705, the fire ravaged the institution once again. His Grandeur,” testifies his servant, “did not lose his peace, his joy, nor his tranquility for a moment, because these accidents were not subjects capable of attacking his patience and his virtue, which were far above all that. Only the interests of God, virtue and religion were capable of moving him.
On this occasion, Houssart reports an astonishing fact which reveals the charity of the first bishop of Quebec: after the second fire, the Seminary did not even have the “hundred ecus which were necessary to have all the walls and vaults roughly covered, His Grandeur having this sum and having almost no fabric to give to the poor, for fear that our Gentlemen would ask him to make the roofs, he secretly sent me to buy one hundred deer skins to give to the poor instead of cloth, and gave me three hundred and twenty-five livres to pay for them with more joy than a poor man would have received by alms. “
In 1691, then in 1694 and especially from 1700, Francis de Laval replaced Bishop de Saint-Vallier during his stays in France. The last one lasted a long time, since the bishop of Quebec was taken prisoner by the English during the crossing and incarcerated in England. Louis XIV refused to pay his ransom, a good way to rid New France of this inconvenient bishop. Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier understood the lesson: when he returned to his diocese in 1713, his character was singularly softened.
In the meantime, Bishop de Laval had died. During Holy Week of 1708, he had contracted a frostbite on his heel which became infected. He breathed his last on May 6. New France owes him a high quality clergy, free of Jansenism, generally in good agreement with the population, guardian of the ideal of Christianity. At the time of the renaissance, his life and his work will be the model of the Good Shepherd according to the Heart of Jesus and Mary.